CALAIS, Maine — Most people know about Acadia National Park and Maine’s portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, but the National Park Service actually manages a third site in Maine: St. Croix Island International Historic Site, located just south of Calais.
“It is the only international historic site in the entire National Park Service system,” site manager Meg Scheid said.
The park technically is open all year but is staffed only from mid-May through Columbus Day. Although a gate is closed when the site is not staffed, a sign tells visitors they can park their vehicles and proceed on foot.
“We want parks to be open and welcoming. In fact, I hate the gate,” Scheid quipped.
This year, staff are ready to greet visitors starting May 16, which is the start of Victoria Day weekend. Victoria Day is a Canadian holiday that celebrates Queen Victoria’s birthday.
“We need to always be mindful of our Canadian neighbors because we’re an international historic site,” Scheid said. The island is located in the middle of the St. Croix River, between Calais and Bayside, New Brunswick.
French pioneers tried to settle on the island in 1604, but 35 out of 79 settlers died during that very difficult winter. Those who survived ended up relocating their settlement to Nova Scotia the following summer, Scheid said. The attempt to settle on St. Croix Island — a few years before the British established a colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1607 — nevertheless marked the beginning of French presence in North America, according to the Park Service’s website.
The St. Croix Island International Historic Site, which is run by Acadia National Park, was dedicated in 1968 as a national monument and in 1984 was established as an international historic site, Scheid said. The U.S. Park Service runs the park because the island technically is on U.S. soil. Through a “memorandum of understanding,” Americans and Canadians work together to interpret it for visitors, Scheid said.
In 2004, Americans and Canadians worked together to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the French settlement.
“The event was 10 years in the planning and put St. Croix on the map,” Scheid said. “The big event brought a great deal of attention to the island.”
For many years, there wasn’t anything at the park. Its only employee was a seasonal maintenance person, and the Park Service was considered an “absentee landlord,” Scheid said.
After the celebration, a facilities development plan was created to expand and improve the site.
“I was hired as the first permanent employee,” Scheid, who began her duties in the fall of 2004, said.
The island itself is accessible only by boat, and visiting is discouraged because the island and its artifacts are fragile.
“We really take our responsibility for protecting the island seriously,” Scheid said. “We’ve invested heavily in the mainland so that people can explore the St. Croix Island from the mainland.”
The 22 acres on the mainland feature a modern ranger station completed in 2010 with bathrooms, a book shop and indoor exhibits. Just this year, a two-bedroom apartment was completed on the second floor of the station for staff living quarters.
Three picnic tables, which are wheelchair accessible, are situated near the station.
A short trail, also wheelchair accessible, features interpretive signs and life-size sculptures depicting settlement life in 1604. A small pavilion overlooking the water holds a model of the settlement based on drawings from the journal of one of the settlement’s leaders. Based on archeological findings, the actual site looked a bit different, Scheid said.
The pavilion also offers the site’s approximately 15,000 annual visitors a view of St. Croix Island itself.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the island is located in the middle of the St. Croix River, between Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick. It is between Calais and Bayside, New Brunswick.